Using a dolly for filming

Using a dolly for filming


Once you go beyond basic filming with a tripod you want to achieve more complex shots with moving cameras.  While it’s possible to have the cameraman walk while holding the camera it doesn’t produce smooth movement due to the up and down motion caused by the walking.  The best way to solve this is by using a dolly which is basically just a moving platform on wheels which gives you a place to mount your camera.  A dolly can be used with or without a track system, but using a track will give you the most desirable and smoothest effect.

A professional dolly rig can get pretty pricey so let’s talk about how the low budget film-maker can do things without breaking the bank.  You can go to any hardware store and probably find everything you need to make a dolly.  Some people choose to make a track system from PVC pipe and the dolly from PVC, wood and anything else they can get their hands on.  It’s cheap and it works well for the price but doesn’t always give you the best results.  I prefer using metal pipes for the rail system because they are stronger, straighter and give a more professional looking final result.

The second major component, and arguably the most important, are the wheels.  This is because a set of hard wheels made of hard plastic or metal can cause shaking that is visible on camera.  Even skateboard wheels or inline skate wheels can be susceptible to this kind of problem.

Ok, so just to reiterate a bit, my preferred rig is made from metal pipes, metal fittings and connectors (wherever possible), coupled with some type of rubber wheels .  I choose to go this route because while the metal pipes and fittings are harder to work with and cost more, they are infinitely stronger and you can make a rig that actually supports the weight of people and equipment.  Having said that, you can just as easily make it out of wood and PVC pipe or any combination of materials.  Another downside to using metal is that to make it really strong you should have critical areas (particularly the chassis) on the dolly welded.

I prefer to use square metal pipes for most the the actual dolly construction and round metal pipes for the track.  The square pipes work best for the dolly because you can use a normal drill to make holes and then use nuts and bolts to hold things together.  It simplifies construction and reduces the overall cost because you don’t need to have those parts welded.  In fact, only the main chassis of the dolly needs to be welded for structural rigidity, the rest can use nuts and bolts with a little lock-tight to hold it together.

My favorite low-budget rig track was made from two sets of parallel, round, metal pipes.  Why two sets, you ask?  Well, I chose to have larger, inflated, rubber wheels on my rig so I could use it with or without a track system.  These wheels won’t work on a normal two pipe track, you have to create a channel for the larger wheels to run down so four pipes are necessary.  This setup really wasn’t really a low budget rig, but more of a mid-budget setup.

Before you run out to buy a bunch of stuff, you need to make a plan first.  How are you going to use this dolly?  Is a cameraman going to be sitting or standing on it or walking along beside it?  What equipment do you need to use?  Make some drawing of your dolly and try to make a complete list of parts you are going to need.  If you are using wood to make the chassis you can often have the staff at the hardware store cut it for you.  Then it’s just a matter of drilling holes and assembling it.

When choosing wheels for your dolly, make sure they are smooth.  A lot of wheels at hardware store will have little nubs on them for traction.  That’s great for driving through mud in your backyard but gives a very undesirable bumpy result for your dolly rig that’s visible on camera.

If you want to take it a step further, you can even add a jib system to your dolly to achieve smooth horizontal shots and incorporate vertical movement into it as well.  This can really help boost the professional appearance of your film by giving you a wider range of possible camera angles to shoot from.  If you want to do this, you should really consider investing a little more time and money and using stronger materials and having the high stress areas welded, particularly the chassis and mounting areas for the boom.


Good luck building your dolly rig!